Erikka Askeland: Drinking in caffeine culture

Coffee was introduced to the UK from North Africa via Venetian merchants in the 17th century. Picture: TSPL
Coffee was introduced to the UK from North Africa via Venetian merchants in the 17th century. Picture: TSPL
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I AM a drug addict. When I get my fix, I get a sense of mild euphoria and well-being.

The day brightens as my brain shakes off its blankets. When I don’t have it, the world around me is flattened and blurred, as if my senses are befuddled and encased in crumbled cellophane. And, I admit, my mood can probably turn on the dial towards “grumpy” without it.

My preferred delivery method is in a cup, served dark, hot and strong. Americano, most days, but sometimes in a double espresso when circumstances require. And no, I do not take it adulterated with milk or sugar. Never have done. While I might occasionally have it served as a latte or a cappuccino, my first cup of coffee when I was a child – a much nagged-for right of passage – did not include sweetening. The bitter kick in the dark richness has always been the taste I’ve craved.

But I feel for the US Food and Drug Administration, which recently published a warning to food manufacturers who have been adding caffeine to pretty much everything. Products that now come in “wired” versions include instant porridge, chewing gum and waffles. Which strikes me as traditionally gung-ho, give-me-convenience-or-give-me-death American-style overkill. I mean, why not just have your oatmeal with a cup of coffee or tea?

A few years ago, the Yankees took a dim view on caffeinated malt liquor which has been pretty much banned. The FDA reckoned the combination, where the caffeine masks the otherwise depressant effects of alcohol, led to “hazardous and life-threatening situations”. Which should give us some pause for thought, considering our own favourite, Buckfast, has the same amount of caffeine as eight cola drinks.

Caffeine is one of the world’s most widely used drugs, prized for its ability to put a zing in your step. And while most wardens of public health recommend ingesting no more than what you would get in four or five cups of coffee a day, it is not particularly dangerous if you have more. In fact there seems to be health benefits for those who indulge reasonably. Studies have shown it might alleviate depression in women and reduce incidence of prostate cancer in men. And you can always tell when you have gone overboard. Last time I overdosed, my jaw ached from clenching. My morning coffee meeting had extended to two strong cups which meant I felt jittery all day. But, according to the Energy Fiend website, I’d have to drink 95 mugs in order to kill myself.

If, for whatever reason, you have been forced to give up caffeine, my heart goes out to you. Insomniacs. Those with fibrocystic breast lumps. But if you have decided to abstain merely in order to claim some moral, self-denying high ground, surely it can’t be worth it. And while tea is OK – coffee, introduced to the UK from North Africa via Venetian merchants in the 17th century – is the basis of everything that is thoughtful in society. Coffee houses in London and Edinburgh fuelled the Enlightenment, created alert, curious folk who both wrote and read newspapers, and even gave rise to the trading hub that became known as the City. Lloyds of London insurance giant was founded in a coffee house catering for sailors, ship owners and merchants. They should have stuck with a cuppa. It has always been my suspicion that some of the overzealous bankers in the most recent crisis were spurred by much stronger stimulants.

Neither the UK nor the US are top of the list of coffee drinking nations. This is dominated mainly by Scandinavians, led by Finland where average consumption tops four to five cups per person per day. On my first visit to the UK I was disgusted by the desecration posing for coffee served at the conference I was attending. So me and a Norwegian bloke lit out for the city centre to find some real stuff. I tease the man in my life who occasionally brews himself up an instant decaff, but I have since started allowing it in the house.

I am an addict but I am also a purist. If all products that had caffeine added to them were banned, I’d be happy with that.

But you won’t be able to take the cup of coffee out of my cold, shaking hands.